Essay: does going topless lose its appeal?
Back in 1992, when I gained that hugely valuable slip of paper allowing me to drive anything, anywhere (within reason), I had one thing on my mind. Well, two. Only one’s relevant to this article though. I was utterly obsessed with topless models.
Yes, the glorious red four-door Chevette that gave me those vital first tastes of freedom was frankly, the best car I have ever owned – out of 137 now – purely because it was the car that made the rural desolation of the Scottish Borders seem like a paradise – friends that were 2 hours away by bus were now 20 minutes, roads were deserted. Having passed my test in May, the summer was glorious, and I wanted a Cabriolet.
First there was a Renault 5 Cleveland – a car which was converted by former McLaren engineers, but was little more than some tubes, fibreglass and a floppy roof that I mostly abused as a “sedanca” style cabriolet by rolling up to the rollbar and tucking under. Then there were Citroën Dyanes. A 4 year old Fiat X1/9 Gran Finale possibly replaced the Chevette’s place in my heart, before insurance and obsession with “new things” saw it cruelly kicked aside for a 1.8 Manta. A Talbot Samba cabriolet was narrowly avoided (too brown), before a full-length sunroof Beetle and a proper Karmann Beetle, then a Visa Decap whilst the rest of the fleet was CX shaped.
The thing is – I loved driving, and loved driving with the roof down, in Scotland. Since moving I’ve had an MX5, Sunbeam Alpine, Golf Cabriolets… and before that either owned or considered owning pretty much everything with a removable roof. In the early days, if it had a roof, I’d sketch how it’d look without one if I liked it. A reluctant move forced the sale of the best cabriolet I could imagine, a Mercedes 500SL-32v, and I wasted daft amounts on bad mechanics trying to perfect my Golf Clipper.
So I end up in my mid-30s, having done the sensible thing and passed a C6 over to a dull-but-economical C3 with a big windscreen and small thirst. First an SS1. Didn’t like it. Then an MG F VVC – too refined.
A chance encounter with a Rover 114 Cabriolet – yes, that rare (in the eBay sense) and seemingly unloved little ragtop Metro – saw it taking residence beside Keith’s old Ro80 (which looks much the same, but has fewer panels on the front at the moment). Surely this simple, unrefined 8v Cabriolet would be the joyous, fun transport I longed for. It certainly wasn’t the practical small car my girlfriend wanted, and I’d originally set out to buy (fortunately she now has another Mk 5 Fiesta, rust aside one of Ford’s best designs in my opinion).
I have no doubt that my seventeen year old self would have absolutely loved the Metro Cabriolet. Despite being a permanent and VERY annoying fixture at our local Jaguar-Land Rover dealer (and associated Rover dealer, where I bought my first car) the existence of the Cabriolet escaped my attention – otherwise, I may well have bought one; my first new car cost about £10K, easily comparable to the selling price of the 114 Cabriolets in 1996. Small, chuckable and leagues ahead of the A-series MG Metro that replaced the Chevette (I loathed it, wanting a BX), the 114 Cabriolet’s build quality is seemingly far ahead of those ’80s AR products. Mine’s had 45,000 miles of use and neglect, and the doors shut well, there’s very little rust compared to, say, a 2001 Fiesta or 2006 Ka. The special interior components are well finished, and as with any hydragas-suspended Metro the ride quality puts other superminis to shame.
It pitches a bit on really poor surfaces, but at 50mph, on a rough Leicestershire B-road, it glides where a modern car will jiggle.
Most of my bugbears with modern cars are lost, too. I can dangle my arm out of the window like the obnoxious, t-shirt tanned driver I am. I can see around the windscreen pillars – just don’t think about what happens if the car should roll. The gearbox is a delight, more precise than my new Citroën, and the 8v 1.4 K-series is possibly the perfect engine for this size of car.
Much of this applies to a regular 114. Maybe a nice Ascot SE or GTa. Removing the roof adds nothing to the driving characteristics of the car.
LAMM & Tickford, and Rover of course, did a fantastic job of removing the tiny Metro’s roof. Unlike many mainstream conversions, there’s no ugly roll bar and the boot space remains usable – no worse to access and use than a Golf or New Beetle Cabriolet, and probably bigger than an MX5 – definitely, when you consider the seats can be tumbled forward like a regular Metro to leave a flat floor.
The Mk 1 Golf might have had a removable parcel shelf, but it had a bar between the suspension turrets that made it hard to fit bulky objects even with the seats down.
The rear side window modules are well made and provide an attractive, pillarless look with the roof up. Rimmers currently have NOS ones of these at 1/6th of their RRP; tempting to buy to keep as spares, it’s hard to imagine needing them. The sealing is well executed too, with a complex rubber cant rail that works surprisingly well. The roof itself is comparable to the better Cabriolet models of the era, let down only by the plastic rear window (which even a BMW 3-series had to put up with); it folds quickly under power, raises effectively and doesn’t need to be pulled down for the final latching. Manual windows provide the only pause in the process, as the rear windows should be dropped before raising the roof.
Of course, the folded roof utterly destroys any chance of rear visibility you might have hoped for. This is no different to a Mk 1 Golf, a Samba; even the pretty 205 Cabriolets have a fairly bulky roof.
Extensive body strengthening does a sterling job of making the Metro Cabriolet handle well and feel solid, too. There’s less scuttle shake than a C70 Cabriolet or Saab C900; the suspension no doubt helps. Rear passengers are robbed of under-seat footwell space (but kneeroom for a 5’8″ driver and passenger behind is acceptable) thanks to an immense beam that crosses the floorpan – in a side impact, this car would undoubtedly fare better than the hardtop and Rover could – and possibly should – have learned some lessons here for making the Rover 100 tougher prior to Euro-NCAP testing.
- In short, it’s a good small Cabriolet. I’d go as far as to say that technically, it is one of the best; superior in rigidity to the Punto Cabriolet that provided the most direct competition.
And so I have to come to the realisation, that I have been spoiled. Cars like the 500 SL and MX5 have made me realise that I need more than just a topless model of an otherwise unappealing (to me) car to entertain me when driving; and cars like the Toyota Sera demonstrated that the light and visibility I want can be had without having an insecure compromise for a roof.
Roads have changed, driving habits – for me, and for many others – have changed. And I think new drivers just aren’t open to the suggestion of a slow convertible car as a way to enjoy that early, life-changing experience of being in control of your own destination. Insurance on even the most basic car is excessive, unreasonable, regardless of your opinion of young drivers’ abilities; slicing the roof off makes them utterly unmanageable.
But the Metro… if I had the freedom and space that I had when I was a teenager, yes, I would love it. It’s just quirky enough that it’s uncommon, the Rover Metro/100 is a much, much better drive than the old ones that put me off Metros as a breed, and Rover did a fantastic job with the conversion. It’s a shame that – as the heydey of hacksaw-and-metal-tube conversions like the Rapport, Top Hat and Crayford indicates – they did it a decade too late. Had the Mk 2 MG Metro been presented with such a variant (or even a more practical creation based on the saloon prototype), it would have been a best seller.
At this point in life though, the credit must go to the creators of the 78mpg, panoramic-windscreen equipped tiny Citroën – for making a car so painless to own, and so pleasant to be in and drive, that it’s utterly ruined the pleasure to be found by removing the roof from an otherwise dull small car. And every time I realise that I can no longer justify, even on an emotional level, a car which is convertible just for the sake of having a convertible, I hate growing up a little more.